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Clash cymbals

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Subject: Crash cymbal, Percussion section, China cymbal, Castanets, Marching percussion
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Clash cymbals

Crash cymbals
Two sets of crash cymbals in use in a marching band
Percussion instrument
Classification Percussion
Hornbostel–Sachs classification 111.142
(Cymbals: Vessel clappers with everted rim)

Crash cymbals (also called concert cymbals or orchestral cymbals) are cymbals played in matched pairs by holding one cymbal in each hand and striking the two together.

Zildjian crash cymbals after a big crash
Paiste crash cymbals in use in a percussion section
A pair of Sabian crash cymbals

They are also called hand cymbals, however a hand cymbal can also be a suspended cymbal struck by hand rather than with a beater, and western types are often called crash cymbals; however a crash cymbal is more commonly a medium sized and strongly tapered suspended cymbal struck with a drum stick.


The technical term crash cymbal is rarely used. In musical scores, crash cymbals are normally indicated as cymbals or sometimes simply C.C. If another type of cymbal, for example a suspended cymbal, is required in an orchestral score, then for historical reasons this is often also indicated cymbals. Some composers and arrangers use the plural cymbals or crash cymbals to indicate crash cymbals, with the singular cymbal to indicate a suspended cymbal.

Composers will often mix crash cymbals and suspended cymbal on the same part. There are a number of techniques used to indicate which is desired. Whenever with stick or with mallet is written, a suspended cymbal is used. A return to crash cymbals can be specified with the Italian phrase a 2. Russian composers developed a notation to differentiate between crash and suspended cymbals in which a + (plus sign) is written over a note to be played on suspended cymbal and a ° (open circle) is written over a note to be played with crash cymbals.

Designers of various sound banks, such as the Garritan Personal Orchestra, distinguish between handheld and suspended cymbals by referring to the former as "Piatti cymbals", having already reserved the term "crash cymbal" for the latter. Since "piatti" is the Italian term for "cymbal", this may be an awkward, redundant term.


Playing crash cymbals

Marching Bands

Crash cymbals are conventionally played by a standing player. In a marching band context, the player prepares for the crash by holding the cymbals parallel a few inches apart, with the surfaces vertical, one at waist height and the other some distance above it. They are struck together by bringing the upper cymbal down and the lower up to meet in approximately the middle.

If only a single crash is to be played, the sounding cymbals are then both raised in a follow through and held vertical but no longer parallel, but instead in roughly the same plane with their concave surfaces facing the audience and held head high on either side of the player. This allows the cymbals to resonate freely. Alternatively, if another stroke is to follow, the cymbals are allowed to follow through only until they have reached the same heights as they started (but now vertically reversed), and are then ready in position for the next stroke.

For softer strokes, in preparation the cymbals are held not quite vertically but at a slight angle, but still parallel, and the upper cymbal is then allowed to fall towards the lower. The follow through is reduced or even omitted after softer strokes.

Because crash cymbals can be maneuvered like pom-poms or other handheld devices, cymbalists will often employ various feats of showmanship, such as spinning and flashing, striking cymbals between players, or creating visual designs. Some of these serve a functional purpose—waving cymbals after a grand stroke allows for the crash to resonate more clearly. Others are purely decorative—a cymbal line moving in quick pace during a field show can simulate airplanes or dragons.

Also, there are numerous techniques for playing cymbals, many of them very different from those listed above.

Orchestras and Wind Bands

In an orchestral or wind band context, the cymbals are typically held parallel a few inches apart at chest height. For best crashes, the cymbals are held just off vertical, at a slight angle. For piano crashes the cymbals are brought together from centimetres apart and allowed to 'fizz' for a millisecond. Whereas for forte crashes, using both arms in an upward sweeping motion (as if you were rolling your arms and shoulders back and round to the front in circles), the cymbals are brought together with equal force from both left and right hand. Ideally, the player would allow the edge furthest away from their body to make contact first, with the rest following milliseconds later. They are rarely held almost horizontal, with the left cymbal on bottom. This is widely recognised as terrible technique, and does not bring out anything from the cymbals other than a very weak 'crash' with no depth of sound or timbre.

Other common techniques are to choke the sounding cymbals by bringing them together and then damping one or both against the body. A skilled player can produce elaborate rhythms by choking the cymbals well, and with fine cymbals can exercise precise control over both the loudness and the decay and apparent duration of each crash.

Less skilled players, children and cartoon characters are often seen playing cymbals by beating them together with a purely horizontal motion. This technique has even been used by some avant-garde composers, but generally produces poor control of the sound and risks damage to fine cymbals, which are not designed for such usage.

Hi-hat stands

A drum kit normally contains one pair of crash cymbals mounted on a pedal-operated hi-hat stand. These are commonly far smaller and lighter than hand-operated crash cymbals, and are played with drum sticks as well as crashed together using the pedal.

Weights, tones and sizes

The traditional four-cornered strap knot

In the orchestra, crash cymbals are normally matched pairs of crash cymbals. They are commonly found in three weights:

  • Francese, French, leggero or light, the lightest and thinnest.
  • Viennese, medio or medium.
  • Germanic, German, Wagnerian, pesante or heavy, the heaviest and thickest.

Pairs in all weights range in size from 14" to 22" diameter. The smallest and thickest tend to have the higher pitch, the thinner ones allow for greater expression, and the largest the greatest volume.

Crash cymbals are also used in military, stage and marching bands, percussion ensembles, theatrical performances, and in state and religious ceremonies. These range in size from those of orchestral cymbals all the way down to about 5" in diameter.

Straps and alternatives

Orchestral crash cymbals and most band cymbals have leather straps passed through the holes in their bells, leading to four tails which are knotted inside the

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